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Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45 (2009) 1127–1131

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Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

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Lessons from a Faraway land: The effect of spatial distance on creative cognition
Lile Jia *, Edward R. Hirt, Samuel C. Karpen
Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, 1101 E. 10th Street, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405, United States

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: Recent research [Förster, J., Friedman, R. S., & Liberman, N. (2004). Temporal construal effects on abstract
Received 19 March 2009 and concrete thinking: Consequences for insight and creative cognition. Journal of Personality and Social
Revised 23 May 2009 Psychology, 87, 177–189] has identified temporal distance as a situational moderator of creativity.
Available online 6 June 2009
According to Construal Level Theory [Liberman, N., Trope, Y., & Stephan, E. (2007). Psychological Distance.
In E. T. Higgins & A. W. Kruglanski (Eds.), Social psychology: A handbook of basic principles (pp. 353–381).
Keywords: New York: Guilford Press], temporal distance is just one case of the broader construct of psychological
Construal Level Theory
distance. In the present research, we investigated the effect of another dimension of psychological dis-
Spatial distance
tance, namely, spatial distance, on creative cognition and insight problem solving. In two studies, we
demonstrate that when the creative task is portrayed as originating from a far rather than close location,
participants provide more creative responses (Study 1) and perform better on a problem solving task that
requires creative insight (Study 2). Both theoretical and practical implications of this finding are
Ó 2009 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Introduction level construals. Low-level construals encompass concrete, contex-

tualized, and subordinate features of events. High-level construals,
Performance on creativity tasks is highly valued in society (cf. in contrast, refer to abstract, decontextualized, and superordinate
Sternberg & Lubart, 1996), and social psychological research has features of events. Thus, while low-level construals include fine-
been intrigued by the question ‘‘When are people most creative?” grained and even peripheral details, high-level construals are con-
Some potent situational moderators of creativity have been identi- cerned with fewer, central meanings of events. Consider an illus-
fied: mood (e.g., Hirt, Devers, & McCrea, 2008; Isen, Daubman, & tration used by Bar-Anan, Liberman, and Trope (2006) about two
Nowicki, 1987; Murray, Sujan, Hirt, & Sujan, 1990), intrinsic/ children playing catch with a ball in a backyard. A low-level con-
extrinsic rewards (see Amabile, 1996, for a review), regulatory fo- strual of this activity might include such details as the way the ball
cus (Friedman & Förster, 2001), and even bodily cues (Friedman & flies across the backyard and the kind of shoes the children are
Förster, 2000, 2002). One such moderator that is particularly rele- wearing. In contrast, the primary features of playing catch and
vant here is the manipulation of temporal distance (Förster et al., ‘‘having fun,” instead, comprise the main representation of a
2004). Based on the recent development of Construal Level Theory high-level construal of the same activity.
(Trope & Liberman, 2003; Trope, Liberman, & Wakslak, 2007), Psychological distance, which is an index of ‘‘closeness” with
which suggests that temporal distance is simply one dimension reference to one’s self, determines the level at which an object
of psychological distance, we investigated whether another form is mentally represented. In general, psychologically distant events
of psychological distance, namely, spatial distance, has parallel ef- are represented at high-level construals and psychologically near
fects on one’s creativity. events are represented at low-level construals. So far, four dimen-
sions of psychological distance have been empirically identified:
Contrual Level Theory spatial distance, temporal distance, social distance, and hypotheti-
cality (Liberman et al., 2007). Individuals represent an event at
According to CLT (Liberman, Trope, & Stephan, 2007; Trope & high-level construals when it is going to happen a year later vs.
Liberman, 2003;), one’s mental representation of an event or object tomorrow (Liberman & Trope, 1998), when it occurs at a place
is a function of its psychological distance. Specifically, individuals 2000 miles vs. 2 miles away (Fujita, Henderson, Eng, Trope, &
represent psychologically near events with concrete, low-level Liberman, 2006; Henderson, Fujita, Trope, & Liberman, 2006),
construals and psychologically distant events with abstract, high- when it is enacted by a person dissimilar vs. similar to the obser-
ver (Liviatan, Trope, & Liberman, 2008), or when it is highly unli-
* Corresponding author.
kely vs. likely to happen (Wakslak, Trope, Liberman, & Alony,
E-mail address: (L. Jia). 2006).

0022-1031/$ - see front matter Ó 2009 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
1128 L. Jia et al. / Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45 (2009) 1127–1131

Construal level and creativity but also facilitates creativity on tasks with objective answers. In both
studies, the spatial distance is manipulated by telling participants
Förster et al. (2004) demonstrated that high-level construals, as the task was either from a close vs. faraway location.
opposed to low-level ones, enhance one’s performance on a diverse
range of tasks that require creativity or creative insight. Specifi-
cally, participants in the high-level construal condition demon- Experiment 1
strated better mental insight (Study 1), better visual insight
(Studies 2 and 3), and generated more creative responses (Studies Method
4 and 5). This beneficial effect of high-level mental representations
on creativity presumably derives from the fact that high-level con- Participants
strual encourages abstract thinking, a critical condition that has Sixty-five (21 male, 44 female) Indiana University introductory
been theorized to facilitate creative cognition (e.g., Finke, 1995; psychology students participated in return for partial fulfillment of
Ward, 1995). Given that individuals’ cognition becomes more ab- a course requirement.
stract when they are induced into higher level mental representa-
tions, they also become better at solving creative problems. Procedure
Notably, Förster et al. (2004) manipulated construal level exclu- Participants were randomly assigned to either the spatially near
sively by varying temporal distance. Participants were generally or distant condition. Those in the spatially distant condition were
told to imagine their lives tomorrow (near future) or on a day asked to complete a ‘‘linguistic skills” task developed by Indiana
1 year from now (distant future), and then to imagine themselves University (IU) students enrolled in a ‘‘Study Abroad Program in
completing the task on that particular day. If it is the abstract cog- Greece.” Participants in the spatially near condition read an identi-
nition associated with a high-level mental construal that facilitates cal cover story, but were told the task was developed by IU stu-
creativity, then manipulation of psychological distance other than dents currently enrolled in a program at ‘‘Indiana University–
temporal distance should produce the same effect. Purdue University, Indianapolis.” In both conditions, we informed
the participants that we had agreed to collect useful data for the
Spatial distance and creativity ‘‘group of IU students.”
The linguistic skills task (Hirt et al., 1997, 2008) gave partici-
In the present research, we are interested in the effect of spatial pants unlimited time to list as many exemplars of the category
distance on individuals’ creative cognition. Spatial distance has ‘‘modes of transportation” as they could think of. The instructions
both theoretical and practical importance. Although CLT does not emphasized that there were no right and wrong answers and par-
differentiate among the various psychological distances (Liberman ticipants’ responses could be ‘‘as commonplace or as creative and
et al., 2007), spatial distance, as one of the developmentally earliest out of the ordinary as you like.” After completing the listing task,
concepts (e.g., Clark, 1973), is likely to be centrally important by we administered the same set of questionnaires used in Hirt
providing a metaphorical basis for the construction of all other et al. (2008) (see Appendix A) to assess participants’ task interest,
psychological distances (Williams & Bargh, 2008). Practically, since task enjoyment, and affect, factors that have been shown to influ-
we routinely work on tasks and with people from a diverse geo- ence one’s creativity (Hirt et al., 2008). Finally, participants were
graphical range, thanks to the internet and email, it is important debriefed and probed for suspicion.
to explore the ways in which information about spatial distance af-
fects performance on creative tasks. Results and discussion
Another objective of the present research is to further explore
the conditions in which psychological distance impacts creativity. Consistent with previous research (see Hirt et al., 1997, 2008),
In Förster et al. (2004), the manipulations of temporal distance in- we derived three measures of creativity from the listed exemplars:
volved explicit imagination of the self working on the tasks in the fluency (the number of exemplars generated), flexibility (the num-
future. As a result, it is unclear if minimal cues of psychological dis- ber of distinct categories represented in the generated exemplars),
tance alone can influence individuals’ creative cognition. We ex- and originality (the average uniqueness of the exemplars judged by
plore the effect of one such cue: the origin of a task. Without independent raters). Three separate independent sample t-tests
explicitly directing participants’ attention to this information, the confirmed that participants in the distant condition displayed
present research investigated whether psychological distance af- greater fluency, t(63) = 2.50, p = .015 (M = 13.97, SD = 6.36 vs.
fects one’s creativity without a highly involved imagination M = 10.45, SD = 4.91), were more flexible, t(63) = 2.63, p = .011
process. (M = 4.00, SD = 1.00 vs. M = 3.28, SD = 1.20), and generated more
original exemplars, t(63) = 2.45, p = .017 (M = 1.54, SD = .29 vs.
Overview of current research M = 1.35, SD = .29) than those in the near condition. None of the re-
ported task interest, task enjoyment, or affect measures differed
We conducted two experiments to achieve our aims. In Study 1, between the two conditions, all ts < 1.
participants had to generate different modes of transportation. This Experiment 1 demonstrated that creative generation profits
creative generation task has been used in previous creativity re- from greater spatial distance. Consistent with Förster et al. (2004,
search (Hirt, Levine, McDonald, Melton, & Martin, 1997; Hirt et al., Studies 4 and 5), participants in the spatially distant condition pro-
2008) and has the capacity to assess creative cognition on dimen- duced more fluent and original responses than those in the spa-
sions of fluency, originality, and flexibility, the last of which was not tially close condition. Furthermore, relative to those who
investigated in Förster et al. (2004). As previous research (e.g., Mur- believed the generation task was from Indianapolis, participants
ray et al., 1990) has shown a close relationship between cognitive exhibited greater cognitive flexibility when they believed that
flexibility and creativity, we hypothesized that spatial distance the task was from Greece.
would promote more flexible generation in addition to greater flu- Three issues with Experiment 1, nevertheless, require further
ency and originality. In Study 2, participants worked on problem clarification. The manipulation of spatial distance was confounded
solving tasks that require creative insight (Förster et al., 2004; by the fact that Greece is a foreign country while Indianapolis is
Schooler, Ohlsson, & Brooks, 1993). This task was designed to show not, a difference that might have affected participants’ memory
that spatial distance not only increases individuals’ creative output search processes in generating modes of transportation. Another
L. Jia et al. / Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45 (2009) 1127–1131 1129

issue is that since our assessment of potential mediators (affect, General discussion
motivation) was administered after the creativity task, it is possi-
ble that the experimental manipulation may have impacted these Implicitly altering people’s spatial distance from a particular task
factors prior to task performance. Finally, without a control condi- by changing its perceived location of origin has a demonstrable im-
tion, we could not determine whether a greater spatial distance pact on their creative performance. In Experiment 1, relative to those
facilitates creativity or a close distance inhibits creative output. primed with near distance, participants in the far distance condition
These problems are addressed in Experiment 2. were not only more fluent and flexible in their response generation,
but also generated more creative responses. In Experiment 2, the
same spatial distance manipulation enabled a greater tendency to
Experiment 2 use creative insight by participants in the distant as opposed to the
near and control conditions. The current finding is consistent with
Method previous research showing the effect of psychological distance on
creativity (Förster et al., 2004) and extends it from temporal distance
Participants to spatial distance. It is also consistent with the notion that it was the
One hundred and thirty-two (30 male, 102 female) Indiana Uni- psychologically distant condition that enhances creativity rather
versity introductory psychology students participated in return for than the near condition impeding it (Förster et al., 2004, Study 5).
partial fulfillment of a course requirement. As one major goal of the present research, we demonstrated
that minimal cues of spatial distance were sufficient to influence
Procedure individuals’ creativity, without the need for an imagination process
In the cover story, participants were told that the upcoming that heavily involves the self (Förster et al., 2004). On the one hand,
problem solving task was developed by a research institution and this finding may arise from people’s built-in system for the sensi-
that we had agreed to ‘‘collect some valuable data for them.” To tive detection of spatial distance (Mobbs et al., 2007), which attests
manipulate spatial distance, the location of the research institution to Williams and Bargh (2008) claim that spatial distance plays a
was described to be either in Indiana (‘‘it was actually 2 miles away more fundamental role among the various dimensions of psycho-
from here”), or in California (‘‘it’s actually located around 2,000 logical distance. On the other hand, this finding is also consistent
miles away from here”), or its location was not mentioned at all to with research showing that individuals automatically assessed
represent the near, far, and control conditions, respectively. the psychological distance implied by words related to all forms
Before the creative insight problems, participants answered of psychological distances (e.g., tomorrow vs. a year later; friends
questions regarding potential mediators, namely, their current vs. enemy, and maybe vs. sure; Bar-Anan, Liberman, Trope, & Algom,
mood, expectancy regarding task performance, interest, and moti- 2007). Future research could more directly explore whether the
vation for the task (Förster et al., 2004; see Appendix B). The three present findings can be generalized to minimal cues of other
insight problems included in Experiment 2 met the criteria set by dimensions of psychological distance. This line of research has
Schooler et al. (1993), that they may be understood as (a) ulti- the potential to shed important light on recent theoretical con-
mately solvable by the average problem solver; (b) likely to pro- cerns regarding the differences and commonalities among the var-
duce an impasse, a state of high uncertainty as to how to ious dimensions of psychological distance (Liberman & Förster, in
proceed, during the course of solution; and (c) likely to produce press; Liberman, Trope, & Wakslak, 2007; Williams & Bargh, 2008).
an ‘‘aha” experience. For instance, the first question (see Appendix Our findings also have important practical implications in to-
C for all the three questions) reads: day’s world, where modern technology allows us to routinely work
on projects and with people from a diverse geographical range
from us. To the extent that technologies are going to continue to
A prisoner was attempting to escape from a tower. He found a
remove spatial distance as a barrier to work and social interaction,
rope in his cell that was half as long enough to permit him to
future research should pay increasing attention to the effect of per-
reach the ground safely. He divided the rope in half, tied the
ceived spatial distance on cognition. In addition, the present re-
two parts together, and escaped. How could he have done this?
search also encourages future investigations of the potential
[Solution: He unraveled the rope lengthwise and tied the
effects of other minimal cues of psychological distance inherent
remaining strands together.]
in real life projects on creativity. For example, as working with
Participants had two minutes to solve each of the problems. Fi- individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds begins to become
nally, they were debriefed and probed for suspicion of the purpose the norm in a globalized community, it is particularly important
of the experiment. to empirically explore whether the cultural diversity of a team (a
greater average social distance among group members) promotes
Results more creative performance of the individuals and the team.
In conclusion, the origin of a task is found to affect one’s perfor-
We conducted a one-way analysis of variance on participants’ mance on creativity tasks. This extends previous research on the
performance on the insight problems and it yielded a significant influence of psychological distance on creative cognition and high-
difference across the three conditions, F(2, 129) = 6.08, p < .01. A lights the importance of such minimal cues of spatial distance in
series of contrasts revealed that, as predicted, participants in the predicting creative task performance.
distant condition (M = 1.093, SD = .894) solved more insight prob-
lems than those in the near condition (M = 0.587, SD = .617), Appendix A. Questionnaires assessing task interest and affect
F(1, 87)= 10.59, p < .01, and the control condition (M = 0.698,
SD = .688), F(1, 84) = 5.797, p < .02. The difference between partici-
pants’ performance between the near and the control condition
was not statistically reliable, F < 1. Participants did not differ on 1--------2-------3-------4-------5-------6-------7
measures of mood, task expectancy, interest, and motivation
across the three conditions, all Fs < 1. strongly disagree strongly agree
1130 L. Jia et al. / Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45 (2009) 1127–1131

Fig. A1. Diagram and solution for the triangle problem. Adapted from Schooler et al. (1993).

1. Thinking about different modes of transportation was 1--------2-------3-------4-------5-------6-------7-------8-------9

2. If asked to list items from another category of objects, I would not at all very much
have been happy to do it.
3. I found the task of listing modes of transportation fun. Appendix C. Creative insight problems
4. It was hard for me to get really involved with this task of listing
modes of transportation. Problem 1: A prisoner was attempting to escape from a tower.
5. I thoroughly enjoyed generating different modes of He found a rope in his cell that was half as long enough to permit
transportation. him to reach the ground safely. He divided the rope in half, tied the
two parts together, and escaped. How could he have done this?
On the scale provided below, to what degree a particular adjective Solution: He unraveled the rope lengthwise and tied the remain-
fit their current mood. ing strands together.
Problem 2: A dealer in antique coins got an offer to buy a beau-
tiful bronze coin. The coin had an emperor’s head on one side and
1--------2-------3-------4-------5-------6-------7 the date 544 B.C. stamped on the other. The dealer examined the
coin but instead of buying it, he called the police. Why?
not at all very much
Solution: In 544 B.C. Jesus had not been born, so a coin from that
time would not be marked ‘‘B.C.”
Problem 3: Show how you can make the triangle below [see
Annoyed, happy, depressed, miserable, satisfied, gloomy, pleased,
Fig. A1] point downward by moving only three of the circles.
sad, delighted, content, frustrated, glad.

Appendix B. Measures of mood, liking, expectancies, and References

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